Steamboat Days, Paddlefish Days, and the World’s Largest Bikini Parade: Our penchant for parading says a lot about who we are


The paddlefish in Madison Lake (Minnesota) may need to find a new hook if they want to keep their hold on the good people of their community. Some women there have decided to convert the Paddlefish Days Parade into the “World’s Largest Bikini Parade.” I don’t know if these enterprising women will display the World’s Largest Bikini on a float with apocalyptic dimensions, but if so the poor paddlefish will feel left behind. The Bikini Parade request has raised a row, some eyebrows, and who knows what else. The town’s mayor, Kenneth Reichel, figures the bikini bunch will leave a “black mark” on Madison Lake, but, he says, “the parade will go on.”

Though the Bikini Parade is being sold as a fund-raiser for breast cancer prevention based on the curative powers of Vitamin D activated when skin is exposed to sun, I think the real inspiration for the event is Wisconsin cheese. Though corn queens are maintaining their cultural weight in small town parades throughout the Midwest, no queen––of apples, watermelons, strawberries, cranberries or pork––can challenge the iconic prestige of Wisconsin dairy queens. The nationwide currency of Dairy Queen franchises doubtless originated in the prototype of the lovely teenage dairy queen adorning, in her white dress, the throne of a float slowly parading itself along some Wisconsin town’s Main Street on hot July days. The Madison Lake bikini bunch, which may revolutionize the way Dairy Queen products are marketed everywhere in the world, also may dwarf Wisconsin as a tourist destination.

Downstream in Winona, where I live, we honor steamboats at summer festival time, with a dairy queen or two suffered to trail behind Miss Steamboat Days. Maybe because we haven’t figured out how to rig a steamboat to float down Broadway to perform its parade duties, we let all sorts of queens from other places in. And because Wisconsin’s just across the interstate bridge the cheese connection runs deep. Winona has two Dairy Queens, one on each end of town, and Winona County’s Dairy Princess shows up religiously every year on her very own float.

I prefer to snooze on hot afternoons, but when I see crowds gathering (I live two blocks from the parade route) I decide, rather ritually, to see what the fuss is about. Thousands, ritually, turn out for it, with more and more staking out curbside property right claims two days ahead of the parade. It must be a big deal, so I want to be in on it. Everybody loves a parade.

Every year our dear friend Ellen reserves a curbside chair for my wife and me. Family and friends show up for the parade, and for the delicious sloppy Joes and other goodies Ellen spends hours preparing for everyone. We sit, gab, munch, and wait for what whatever’s happening by next, maybe a surprise––a good way to live, it seems, thanks to Ellen and the return of parade season.

As the floats begin dragging by I can’t help thinking about the Madison Lake bikini bunch. Will their efforts stigmatize the community, or will they increase and multiply the popularity of their parade to the point where it competes with the World Cup? It’s consoling to know that bikinis are being put to good use as cancer cures. If Wisconsin can rightly be proud of its cheese, Madison Lake might become more celebrated than the Mayo Clinic. Already Minnesota can be proud of women who are above average, good-looking and strong. Madison Lake might push us over some new edge.

Since Minnesota’s test scores are above the national average I also wonder if the bikini ladies are ahead of their times in looking back. History has countless lessons to teach, and maybe the ladies understand how deeply the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed parades. Back then parades were victory processions for imperial conquering hoards, or occasions for fertility gods and goddesses to get the life juices of mortals flowing. In those good old days amazed spectators gawked at the warrior legions showing off their loot, their captive women and boys newly minted into slaves and toys, with lions, giraffes, and great apes in chains to show the world what men the warriors really were. The fertility gods and goddesses had their special moments too, ritually. When babies are hard to come by fertility deities are bigger than life, so throngs are eager to follow them to the wine booths and sacred groves where women have a decent chance to get pregnant. The players in these ancient parades didn’t all become defunct. Bacchus, one of the fertility gods, somehow made his way to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, and most of the goddesses had conversion experiences that required them to don white dresses so they could show up in our parades as cranberry, strawberry, apple, watermelon, pork, or dairy queens.

This conversion of goddesses to queens is historically understandable, since babies are a lot easier to come by in these modern hi-tech times. Nowadays we have milk substitutes in the grocery stores, so maybe breasts are not needed any more except to be on parade.

If bikinis were in the Steamboat Days parade I wonder how it would go over with the teenagers in the marching bands. In the Winona parade the frontrunners seem rather stiff––uniformly overdressed and high-stepping it toward some war we imagine we’ve won. The local police pass by first, then the state highway patrol, firemen, ambulance corps, VFW, American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Hearts, veterans of Korea, Vietnam and miscellaneous wars, the U.S. Army and Army Reserves––most of them sweating like the kids carrying trombones and tubas in the marching bands. The teenagers in the marching bands perform their duties too, though I doubt many see themselves as budding parts of a war machine. Most of the ones I know can hardly wait to get out of their band uniforms so they can slip into swimsuits and beeline it to a beach. I think of them when I see the float sponsored by the local humane society. I like to think the cats and dogs penned behind bars on that float have a pretty good chance of being rescued if enough people get to see their eyes. I heard of a member of a (nameless) high school marching band, a snare drummer, who set a bunch of cats free when everyone was gawking at one of the queens.

Players in our Steamboat Days parade keep plodding past, but I can’t really say they amount to anything that adds up. I like the Clydesdales and midget ponies, though I’m sure one of those Shriner Motorcycles will run down a stray toddler some day. It’s hard not to see most of the entries as thinly disguised commercials––for canoes, boat and stock car racing, banks, cable companies, cars, RV’s, furniture, and chains. Religious groups also use the parade to sell themselves, trying to lure people into church or Bible school by throwing Tootsie Rolls at their feet. And politicians are such parade addicts that the Minneapolis Star/Tribune is sponsoring an “I Love a Parade” competition. Politicians with the highest parade miles logged in by Labor Day will be declared winners weeks before people go to the actual polls. One politician in my district walked 300 miles running for office in parades.

As the sun bakes the parade route I start thinking that parades are a national pastime like baseball––that game full of yawns, especially between pitches in the late innings when managers march relievers on and off the mound while commercials on TV have a field day. I keep telling myself there’s a difference between what I see in a parade and on TV. I’ve never seen on TV the Safe and Sober Crash Test Dummies, the Whacky Wheeler of Ready-Mix, the St. Paul Bouncing Team, the Jolly Giant Stiltwalkers, the Twin Cities Unicycle Club, the Zor Fire House Jesters, the Waumandee Lions Pumpkin Cannon, or the Zurah Ho-Ho Classics. Rather bored by the seemingly endless succession of bizarre displays, I still slowly eat it all up, wondering if I have become what I eat.

If parades provide telltale indicators of who we are and what we value, then we shouldn’t be surprised by what we see. Parades are untidy events full of diversity and surprises. They invite me to ask a question that’s been bothering me a lot, especially in these polarized times when a lot of Americans have taken to disliking, if not hating, other Americans they don’t even know: What’s “American” about America? These days we seem to be having a nasty nationwide quarrel about how to answer this question. It’s a question only a bit less disturbing than asking Christians (or Muslims or Jews) what’s “Christian” about Christianity. Bipolar political noise and self-righteous acrimony make the questions not only difficult to answer but also inaudible. This acrimony will result in the exclusion of certain types from our parades.

I don’t like everything I see in parades, but then I don’t like everyone, especially if I can’t remember their names. But sometimes, ritually, it’s good for me to call time out, mix it up with strangers, and take a look at what’s coming down the road. A lot of weird things show up on the parade route, and so many are commercials I feel like an oddball with nothing to sell. But when I look around I see a lot of people like me thoughtfully staring at what’s coming our way next. I see strange diversities––different body shapes, skin colors, hairdos, costumes––both in the parade and lining the parade route. This diversity is maybe what defines “America” best, while deepening and expanding the fertile grounds of our national identity and remarkable prosperity. As a nation we, historically, have kept a lot of differences on the move, and as our differences keep getting mixed together a lot of fertile production seems to result from the stews. Process––and the tolerance, inclusiveness, civility and cheesy silliness required to keep things going––is mainly who we are. Though we throw way too much away for someone else to worry about, we don’t like to swallow our chewing gum.

Having Ellen there for our Steamboat Days parade personalizes our family’s seasonal ritual on her front lawn. Ellen’s a devout Roman Catholic, so I doubt I’ll be able to talk her into taking the trip with me to Madison Lake to see next year’s World’s Largest Bikini Parade. But while I know she has strong beliefs about fertility and hates cancer too, I also know that if the bikinis come to Winona next year she’ll still get up early on parade day to make us her sloppy Joes. People like her maybe frown at what they see, but they’re generous enough to know the parade should go on.